mRNA vaccines for COVID-19: what, why and how

Int J Biol Sci. 2021 Apr 10;17(6):1446-1460. doi: 10.7150/ijbs.59233. eCollection 2021.


The Coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) pandemic, caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus -2 (SARS-CoV-2), has impacted human lives in the most profound ways with millions of infections and deaths. Scientists and pharmaceutical companies have been in race to produce vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. Vaccine generation usually demands years of developing and testing for efficacy and safety. However, it only took less than one year to generate two mRNA vaccines from their development to deployment. The rapid production time, cost-effectiveness, versatility in vaccine design, and clinically proven ability to induce cellular and humoral immune response have crowned mRNA vaccines with spotlights as most promising vaccine candidates in the fight against the pandemic. In this review, we discuss the general principles of mRNA vaccine design and working mechanisms of the vaccines, and provide an up-to-date summary of pre-clinical and clinical trials on seven anti-COVID-19 mRNA candidate vaccines, with the focus on the two mRNA vaccines already licensed for vaccination. In addition, we highlight the key strategies in designing mRNA vaccines to maximize the expression of immunogens and avoid intrinsic innate immune response. We also provide some perspective for future vaccine development against COVID-19 and other pathogens.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; efficacy and safety; mRNA vaccine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / epidemiology
  • COVID-19 / prevention & control*
  • COVID-19 Vaccines / administration & dosage*
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / genetics*


  • COVID-19 Vaccines
  • RNA, Messenger